Veteran Producer Mark Cronin had an unusual background for entertainment. “I went to school for Chemical Engineering. I hated that career, though, and got myself out by harassing the Howard Stern TV show until they hired me in the early 90’s,” he explained. From there he became a showrunner for MTV Singled Out before launching his own production company, Mindless Entertainment for game shows and talk shows and, eventually the reality show, The Surreal Life. “That became a big hit. Now I produce Idiotest for GSN (in our fourth season now), and Below Deck and Below Deck Mediterranean for Bravo,” he added.
Charlene Weisler: How has content creation changed (or not) since you first started in the business?
Mark Cronin: When I started in reality TV it was still a pioneering genre. Now, as a mature business, there are standard procedures, positions and production methods. In the early days, I think we were making it all up as we went along.
Charlene Weisler: How do you craft a character’s image that the audience will believe?
Mark Cronin: When people are on a reality show, you really need them to reveal the truth about themselves. Some people do it easily and willingly and others have more trouble being honest and real in front of the camera. I always construct and cast my shows so that the truth will come out one way or another. Once someone is being honest, truthful and revealing, the audience will know it, recognize it and love it.
Charlene Weisler: What is the state of reality TV today and where do you see it headed in the next five years?
Mark Cronin: I think reality TV is moving more and more toward gritty truth and I think that’s great. It shows the audience maturing and craving more honest revelations and an art that reflects real life in an interesting way.
Charlene Weisler: The Hollywood Reporter just reported on how some producers are not receiving producer credits. Can you talk a bit about what a producer does and why there is a controversy about producer credits?
Mark Cronin: I think the problem isn’t real producers not getting credit, it’s NON-producers getting producer credit. In reality TV, so-called “vanity” credits have always been around. Managers of an important talent (like the host of a game show) often get a producer credit - I think because they want to pad their resume for the future - not because they actually perform any kind of production service to the show. We give it to them to make negotiations with the talent go more smoothly. A real producer is one who actually works day-to-day putting the show together. It’s an actual job that you have to show up for.
Lately, mostly in the scripted world, financiers have started demanding “produced by” credits instead of their traditional “Executive Producer” credits, which everyone knows is a vanity credit. I am thankful that the PGA has started a review process where you have to meet the criteria of actual WORK to get the “p.g.a." designation after your name. I hope that same type of designation comes to reality TV soon - we could use the help clarifying our credit system so that the people who actually do the work can get the credit.
Charlene Weisler: What goes into making a successful TV franchise?
Mark Cronin: Enormous popularity. Everything is about having a huge audience that enjoys the show. What makes a show popular? In my case, I stress humor, big characters and surprising honesty in my storytelling. Those three main elements seem to have worked very well for me over the years.
Charlene Weisler: How have technology and digitization impacted program creation, scheduling and targeting decisions?
Mark Cronin: You know, I have not been hugely affected by digital concerns. I try to make a great show and tell a great story, regardless of the delivery system to the audience. The fans of my show respond in real time on Twitter these days and it can be tempting to take that as scientific feedback, but I think it’s a mistake to over-react to the Twitterverse. The Tweeters are a small and specific demographic. The vast majority of my audience (millions, not thousands) is still just trying to watch and enjoy the show - and what they think is more important to me. Recently, the use of drone aerial footage has really let us take a quantum leap in production value. For Below Deck it has been a game-changer in the look and feel of our show. That’s a new technology I really adore.
Charlene Weisler: What is the secret to content success today?
Mark Cronin: Audiences have been watching reality TV for 30 years now. They know all the tricks. These days they want truth - honesty - the surprises that can only come with capturing the insanity of real life. They want the stuff that makes you say, “You can’t write this stuff!” because if you can write that stuff, it’s not reality.